You may have heard the terms “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement” in reference to parenting. These terms come from the behavioral theory known as “operant conditioning.” Since its proposal in the early 20th century, operant conditioning has become key to understanding parenting psychology.
First, Some History
Operant conditioning was first theorized by psychologist B.F. Skinner in 1938. Skinner was interested in the theories of behaviorist Edward Thorndike, who formulated a “Law of Effect.” Essentially, if a person gets a positive response from taking an action, he’s more likely to do it again than if he gets a negative response.
Skinner added the term “reinforcement” to Thorndike’s theories. He theorized that reinforcers could be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement involves the introduction of a reward for good behavior, while negative reinforcement involves the removal of unpleasant input as motivation to perform a desired behavior.
The best way to explain reinforcement is with Skinner’s own experiments with lab rats. Skinner placed a hungry rat into a box with a lever on one side. When moved or pulled, the lever would dispense food. The rat, allowed to move freely in the box, would eventually bump the lever, causing food to come out. Over time, the rat would hit the lever for food on purpose.
The food reward is a positive reinforcement of the behavior of pulling the lever.
To demonstrate negative reinforcement, Skinner ran an electric current through the floor of the box. The only way to switch off the current was for the rat to hit the lever. Once a rat placed inside the box realized this, it began pulling the lever immediately to avoid a shock.
After a while, the rat would pull the lever before the current was even switched on. The same behavior as before, pulling the lever, was prompted from negative reinforcement.
Schedules of Reinforcement
Skinner found that by strategically controlling the frequency and distribution of reinforcers, one could guide a subject closer to more desired behaviors over time. These variable patterns are known as schedules of reinforcement.
A schedule where a rat is rewarded with food every three times it hits the lever would be known as a “fixed ratio” schedule. Here, reinforcement occurs at a consistent number of correct behaviors.
On the other hand, a “fixed interval” schedule would involve the rat receiving a food reward only after a) it hit the lever, and b) a certain amount of time had passed (the interval).
A “variable ratio” schedule would provide reinforcement after an undefined number of lever pushes. Finally, a “variable interval” would involve reinforcement after both a lever push and an undefined interval of time.
These schedules of reinforcement are the building blocks of operant conditioning. The “operant” is the word for the behavior that a researcher or parent wishes to encourage.
Operant Conditioning in Parenting
Parents can use different schedules of reinforcement according to the behaviors they want to encourage in their kids. “Ratio schedules (fixed or variable) are most likely to increase the frequency of a behavior – the more the child cleans up, the more likely they are to get the treat,” psychologist Lindsay Emmerson wrote on her website, Parenting With Psychology.
“Compared to variable-ratio schedules,” said Emmerson, “in fixed-ratio schedules, you tend to see more of a lull in the desired behavior immediately after the reinforcer is given because the child knows how many times they have to do the desired behavior before earning the next treat. “
This means fixed interval schedules may take longer to produce results. Emerson used a regularly-scheduled spelling test at school as an example.
“In fixed-interval schedules (like the spelling test), you tend to see long periods without the desired behavior (studying) then a surge of behavior prior to the end of the interval (the test),” Emerson wrote. On the other hand, schedules with variable intervals — say, a pop quiz that could occur any day without warning — “result in consistent patterns of behavior where you study regularly just in case there’s a pop quiz tomorrow,” said Emerson.
Operant Conditioning and Parenting — Sources
Parenting With Psychology – “Schedules of Reinforcement: When to use positive and negative reinforcement”
Psychestudy – “Operant Conditioning”
Simply Psychology – “Edward Thorndike: The Law of Effect”
Simply Psychology – “Skinner – Operant Conditioning”